As in many other languages, it is one of the multiple forms of 2nd person (you), but in this case, it's a step in familiarity above tú. For those unfamiliar (no pun intended) with Spanish, here's a quick overview of the standard:
- Tú. Familiar 2nd person singular, used between family and friends.
- Usted. Formal 2nd person singular, used to politely address strangers, acquaintances. Also used in power/age difference situations.
- Vosotros. Familiar 2nd person plural, the plural counterpart to tú. Generally not used in Latin America.
- Ustedes. Formal 2nd person plural. In the absense of vosotros, it is used for both formal and familiar situations.
- It is more familiar than tú - for very close friends and family. In Guatemala, it does not replace tú. It does in other dialects, such as in Argentina.
- The verb is conjugated differently from any other pronoun. The stress is generally on the last syllable, and when irregular, it usually follows the infinitive form.
"you have" tu tienes / vos tenés
"you can" tu puedes / vos podés
"you eat" tu comes / vos comés
- According to one Guatemalan guy (in his mid to late 20s), the connotation is a bit more forceful. This explains the necessity for familiarity before using vos, or you're definitely going to offend people.
- Some interesting gender usages:
Between guys: vos. Apparently it would be weird between close buddies to use tú. "It would be too... flowery," said one guy.
Between girls: vos.
Between genders: tú. It is weird or inappropriate - I'm not sure which - to use vos to address someone of the other gender, even if you are close friends. However, this doesn't apply between siblings.
- This is not a generational difference. People of all ages use vos.
One guy said that with one particular friend he always uses usted. "I don't know why - it's just something about her."
Another girl told me she knows a family where one guy (about 25) uses vos with his brothers, but usted for his little sister. "Que feo!" (how horrible!) she remarked.